“Fish out of water” is such a familiar term in development circles that executives smile and writers often wince when somebody employs the idiom — a handy shorthand extending from “Green Acres” to “Crocodile Dundee.”
It nevertheless seems strange in the midst of today’s red state/blue state divide to see this formula played out, as it is in various new TV programs, without acknowledging the polarized political climate. Instead, we’re treated to a rather warming, once-over-lightly image of America that sidesteps the thorniest aspects of the cultural divide, which won’t do much to mollify those convinced that their values are besieged by “liberal media.”
There are several mini-trends within the upcoming TV season, from fairy tales (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” NBC’s “Grimm”) to period examinations of the ’60s (NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” ABC’s “Pan Am”) to the usual mismatched buddies and supernatural twists. A less ostentatious trope, however, can be found in ABC’s “Suburgatory” and “G.C.B.” as well as CW’s “Hart of Dixie,” which all involve someone relocating from a coastal metropolis to simpler environs.
Most interesting is how little overt politics finds its way into these settings. The wayward fish becomes merely a device — one not particularly interested in diving too far beneath the surface.
In “Dixie,” a Manhattan medical student winds up in Alabama, at first sneering at the local citizenry before beginning to appreciate them. In “Suburgatory,” a New York teenager is sentenced to the suburbs, where she mocks big hair and fake boobs but also grudgingly sees an underlying kindness. And in “G.C.B.,” a prodigal daughter unleashes old resentments by returning from California to Dallas, which her mother dryly notes has “the same weather, without the liberals.”
The schism between Manhattan/L.A. and the South/’burbs, in other words, is largely played as cute, not confrontational; at least in these pilots, nobody tries to legalize gay marriage
or open a mosque near the neighborhood church. But hey, maybe that’s being saved for sweeps.
Originally titled “Good Christian Bitches,” the abbreviated “G.C.B.” appeared calibrated to rile certain constituencies, with its implication of faithful churchgoers engaging in various forms of hypocrisy. But based on the prototype, anyway, that’s as much a promotional come-on as a genuine provocation, which didn’t prevent the Parents Television Council from pouncing to denounce the show.
Clearly, there’s an assumption in certain circles that Hollywood views the so-called “fly-over states” derisively, a feeling often repaid with accusations that the entertainment industry is both godless and anti-Americanism.
This tension has left those on the right hyper-sensitive to any perceived new slight, still smarting over old ones. As evidence, look no further than the response to NBC’s omission of “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance during a recent sports telecast, prompting the Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor to charge the network with “deliberately giving aid and comfort to religious bigots.”
Watch “Hart of Dixie” or “Suburgatory,” though, and viewers are rewarded with a more reassuring vision. Sure, there are geographic differences, but at our core, the prevailing message is there’s more to unite people than divide them.
At the same time, there are relatively few fleshed-out images of small-town life in scripted television. Some of the best, oddly, have lurid crime as a backdrop — FX’s “Justified” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad” come to mind — underscoring that landlocked states like Kentucky and New Mexico can be home to all the illicit drug use, sex and angst we know and love from other primetime indulgences.
It’s understandable, perhaps, that producers and execs would be leery of directly injecting politics into their scripted fare, especially in the getting-acquainted stage. Even in “Glee,” moreover, the issues of acceptance and discrimination facing gay teenagers are presented as universal and hardly unique to the Midwestern setting.
Still, it’s hard to watch “Hart of Dixie” and not wonder about the dramatic possibilities when somebody mentions abortion, or if the doc has a gay pal who decides to visit.
Then again, as with any fish out of water, the first order of business is survival. And in success, presumably, these shows will have the chance to wriggle across those bridges when they reach them. BRIAN LOWRY